When 911 might not be the best choice
On April 19 of 2021, I was watching the closing arguments in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin from my home in Alameda, California, after which I intended to run some errands. I stepped outside and saw some police vehicles at the end of my street next to the small parklet at the end of my street. The area was blocked off by yellow caution tape.
I later discovered that the police were there due to the death of a man named Mario Gonzalez while in police custody. Gonzalez was a 26-year-old resident of Oakland, California. The interaction between Gonzalez and the police was initiated by a 911 call from a resident who described Gonzalez as intoxicated and speaking incoherently.
A few days after Gonzalez's death, the 911 calls from the resident and police body cam footage were released to the public. Investigations are ongoing. I'm waiting patiently for the results. I did review the information that was released, though, and I have an opinion I'd like to share with you, because I live quite near the parklet; I could throw a stone to it from my porch.
Due to my home's proximity to the parklet, I walk by it every day; often multiple times a day. I'm familiar with the activities that occur there. For the most part, the parklet is unused, as it is small and contains no recreational equipment. It is basically a sitting area that abuts a lagoon, which affords the parklet a pleasant view. There are benches there for this purpose. It is not uncommon for people, sometimes young, sometimes old, sometimes disheveled with signs that they may be unhoused, to sit in the parklet and drink beer, smoke pot, and enjoy the view. There may be other, more dangerous drugs being consumed there, but I haven't seen it myself. I have seen people in various states of inebriation, including some who appeared to be suffering from some sort of mental illness, talking to themselves, sometimes loudly. Since I've lived in the same place for a long time and am accustomed to these sorts of activities, it's never made me feel unsafe, and I've never felt that calling 911 was necessary.
The police body cam footage shows officers interacting with Gonzalez. I'm going to avoid making judgments about the actions of the parties involved in deference to the ongoing investigations. However, my subjective viewpoint is that the neighbor who reported the call could have likely saved everyone a lot of trouble by calling the police department non-emergency line instead of 911. I've had occasion to call the police department a half-dozen times, and I always call the non-emergency line, except for one time when my house was burglarized, and I didn't know whether the burglars were still in the house.
The difference is that when you call the non-emergency line, at least in Alameda, the police dispatch a non-sworn technician to evaluate and triage the situation and request additional resources (either police or medical) as needed.
I support law enforcement in general, so this is not a "defund the police" argument I'm making here. I'm saying the actions of Gonzalez, as described in the 911 call, don't fall in my definition of an emergency. I see that type of behavior on a fairly regular basis in the parklet, and even when someone appears to be suffering from mental illness, I'm not aware of violent incidents there resulting from people drinking, smoking pot, or talking crazy in a loud voice.
From a conservative perspective, people may not have a right to drink and smoke pot in a public park, but there should be a balancing act when determining the appropriate response of citizens to these types of situations. The balancing involves the exercise of individual liberty and when that liberty impinges on the safety of others in the community. And yes, that's my libertarian streak coming out. Inside voice: "For Pete's sake, the guy was just down at the parklet getting buzzed, and now he's dead, and the cops are going to get raked over the coals." I should also mention that it has been reported that Gonzalez was the father of a four-year old boy and was a care provider for his autistic brother.
As things stand now, Gonzalez is dead, the officers involved have all been placed on leave pending the outcome of multiple investigations, and there have been several peaceful protests regarding the actions of the police and the neighbor who made the 911 call.
Can we agree that not everything illegal is a 911-level "emergency"? I encourage you to consider my opinion the next time you have need to call the police department and whether calling the non-emergency line might be better than 911. Thank you for your consideration.
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